Tom Swann

By Tom Swann, Fossil Free ANU

2 July 2014 — Is climate change the biggest challenge facing humanity?

ANU vice chancellor Ian Young thinks so. Or at least that’s what he told me recently, when we met to discuss ANU’s fossil fuel investments.

But as Kevin Rudd learned, it’s one thing to talk about the “greatest moral challenge” of our time, and quite another to show real leadership.

How far they have to go was on display last week, when ANU hosted an exclusive Crawford Australian Leadership Forum.

Sponsored by the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Financial Review, 150 specially selected politicians, business people, public servants and academics discussed “geopolitical and economic issues of most immediate contemporary significance” that set “the agenda needing to be addressed by the Australian Government”.

You would think “the biggest challenge facing humanity” might get a mention. But in the wide-ranging three-day conference program, the words “climate”, “carbon” or “environment” did not appear even once.

What’s more, in the forum’s session on energy, three representatives of fossil fuel companies discussed how to increase fossil fuel exports. One was also a wind company board member, but clean energy was not on the agenda.

This is the 21st century. For serious people, climate change is now part of any serious discussion on the big issues. When they’re honest, they face up to what this means: stranding fossil fuel assets.

This is now a mainstream message. Just last week, an ex-US Treasury Secretary warned failing to steer capital away is making a “carbon bubble” that could trigger another GFC.

What sort of message does ANU send by sticking its head in the sand? Think of those who ANU could have invited to speak truth to the powerful people who need to hear it.

ANU professor John Hewson could speak about the carbon risks and opportunities to investors and to our financial system. Ian Chubb, chief scientist and previous ANU vice chancellor, could explain again why corporate Australia must show climate leadership.

Or they could have presented any of ANU’s world leading climate scientists, clean energy engineers and policy experts.

So I wrote to chancellor Gareth Evans urging him to put climate change on the agenda in his opening speech. It is only fitting; the Crawford School, hosting the forum, is home to some of Australia’s best thinking on climate policy. Evans didn’t respond.

But the issue did come up at the forum, when Professor Ross Garnaut, in his session on the macro-economy, pointed out the glaring omission from the agenda.

Ironically, while ANU ignored climate change on one side of campus, on the other, ANU  last week played host to the annual Students of Sustainability conference.

Students from the conference wrote to the Leadership Forum, asking participants to come share their views on climate leadership, “including what it looks like when a large number of intelligent, disproportionately male individuals are asked to simultaneously bury their heads in the sand.”

They would find hundreds of students from around the country, converging for a week of panels and workshops on sustainability and building movements for social change. There were talks from experts such as the Climate Council’s Will Steffen and Climate Change Authority member Clive Hamilton, and luminaries from Australian environmentalism, such as unionist Jack Mundey of the green bans movement.

Amongst the sessions, many student were planning one of the big campaigns or our time: calling on our universities to divest from fossil fuels. The campaign argues it’s time for universities to put their money where their mouth are, and operate as if climate really were the biggest issue we face.

In Australia, the movement started three years ago with the push to clean up ANU’s $1 billion portfolio, which is over-invested in fossil fuels. So vice chancellor Ian Young has had a long time to consider the issue. He acknowledges that we will eventually move beyond fossil fuels, but he is pessimistic it won’t be fast enough to avoid the worst damage.

He should know. He is an ocean climate scientist. His research shows how climate change will fuel stormy winds at sea. But Ian Young has also done engineering work for offshore oil and gas. He claims a conflict of interest and refuses to comment on divestment.

So ANU investment staff are left to wonder if fossil fuels cause “substantial social injury”. That’s the phrase borrowed from Stanford’s investment policy as a trigger for divestment. Gareth Evans says it is the “gold standard”.

But Stanford recently announced they will divest from coal. You would think ANU would follow, but ANU is still yet to let out any sort of smoke signal – other than pretending with the policy bigwigs that climate is not one of our most pressing issues.

It’s a story replicated across so many of our elite campuses. The University of Melbourne has the distinction of being the first to say no to divestment and others Group of Eight unis are coming up with creative reasons to turn a blind eye.

On the cusp of competitive deregulation, perhaps a smaller, forward thinking University may choose to lead?

Update from the final day of the forum

Climate did rate a mention among the rock star economist panel, as ANU twitter accounts made conspicuous.

And, after lunch, Bill Shorten used his address to recommit the opposition to climate action. Labor had “to live with our failure to prosecute the case, to take the public with us on the need for action on climate change”. Labor will “have to re-fight the case for climate change”.

Tom Swann is an ANU master of climate change student, Fossil Free ANU spokesman and research assistant at The Australia Institute.